Three years after the U.S. Department of Education began investigating why a disproportionately high number of African-American students had been arrested for minor rule violations in the Jefferson Parish Public School System, the situation has gotten even worse, the Southern Poverty Law Center said in a federal complaint filed this week.
The complaint supplements an earlier one filed in January 2012 that sparked a federal investigation. It alleges that Jefferson Parish schools are violating the Civil Rights Act and asks the U.S. Department of Justice to get involved this time.
Eden Heilman, the managing attorney for the SPLC’s Louisiana office, said her organization’s goal is to convince federal officials to work with Jefferson’s public school district to map out a strategy that would address the allegations in the complaint and then monitor that the plan is being implemented. The arrangement would be similar to a consent decree, though it wouldn’t involve a court mandate, Heilman said.
A statement released Friday by Beth Branley, a spokeswoman for Louisiana’s largest public school district, said, “We are aware of and are very concerned by these allegations. We pledge to work closely with those agencies involved to quickly resolve any issues that we identify. We are committed to ensuring that our students have a safe, healthy environment and are treated equably at all schools.”
The SPLC lodged the original complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in Dallas on behalf of four students, their families and others similarly affected.
African-American students at the time represented 76 percent of the school-based arrests in Jefferson Parish despite making up only 46 percent of the district’s student population. The Civil Rights Office launched an investigation within two months, but there has been “little to no movement” since then, the SPLC said Friday.
The SPLC’s new complaint says that during the 2013-14 academic year, African-American students made up 41.5 percent of Jefferson Parish’s student population but accounted for 80 percent of the school-based arrests.
The numbers in the report exclude arrests of students who are older than 16 and therefore not considered juveniles, Heilman said. In Louisiana, 17-year-olds can be prosecuted as adults for certain offenses.
Further, the complaint provides data indicating that schools with a higher population of African-American students see more arrests. The three Jefferson schools that had 100 or more arrests in the 2012-13 and 2013-14 school years — Westbank Community School, Gretna Middle School and Stella Worley Middle School — are mostly African-American.
In fact, the complaint prepared by SPLC staff attorney Sara Godchaux said, eight of the nine Jefferson Parish schools that had 50 or more arrests in those two school years had student bodies that were predominantly African-American.
In one instance cited by the SPLC complaint, an eighth-grader was held at Rivarde Juvenile Detention Center for six days after throwing Skittles at a fellow bus passenger. Authorities accused the boy of simple battery and said he resisted arrest after he cried out while being handcuffed and having his arm twisted, the complaint said.
On another occasion, the complaint said, a seventh-grader argued with her mother during a conference with school officials. The girl was handcuffed, booked with “interference with an educational facility” and held overnight at Rivarde before being suspended from school.
The supplemental complaint also decries the fact that the school district has contracts with local law enforcement agencies — including the Sheriff’s Office — that authorize officers at middle and high schools to stop, frisk, detain, question, search and arrest students both on and off campus.
“If law enforcement officers are on school grounds at all, they should be there in a very limited capacity — to protect children in the unlikely event of some kind of violent attack,” Heilman said. “But, as in many other places across the country, school authorities have inappropriately handed off their responsibility to administer routine school discipline to the police.”
The complaint adds that Jefferson Parish “uniquely stands out in Louisiana as the school district with, far and away, the most school-based arrests and law enforcement referrals in the state.”
As evidence, the complaint cites the most recent information available from the Civil Rights Data Collection, which indicates that Jefferson Parish and its student population of 45,914 had 706 school-based arrests and 923 referrals to law enforcement in the 2011-12 academic year.
East Baton Rouge Parish, whose student population of 42,985 was comparable that year, had no school-based arrests and 170 law enforcement referrals.